Red Snapper in the Gulf of Mexico

How Florida Gulf Coast anglers gear up for red snapper season.

By Ed Mashburn


Red snapper are loaded into a small cooler after a successful day on the water off the Florida Panhandle.

On the last day of the 2010 special fall red snapper season, I stood at the rail of a charterboat waiting for the captain to give the signal to drop my bait. It had been a long, dry summer in 2010 because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and subsequent fishing closure of the northern Gulf, and I was very excited at the prospect of feeling that old familiar rap of the strike and then the strong rush toward the bottom which is the standard operating procedure of a hooked red snapper.

At the call, I allowed my jig and bait to free-spool, and after a drop of only 30 feet, I thumbed the spool to slow the bait’s drop, engaged the reel, and didn’t have time to jig once. Something very strong took my dropping jig and headed toward the bottom. Even though my drag was tightened down, line was ripped off the reel as the fish below kept boring deep.

I finally slowed the fish, and after a good back and forth battle, my visitor flashed its broad red sides in the clear Gulf water as I worked the fish toward the surface. A quick gaff shot by the deckhand, and a 12-pound red snapper was dropped in the icebox. My next few hookups were not as successful—especially large fall red snapper kept straightening out my jig hooks or breaking my line. After another vicious strike and battle, I caught my second and final snapper of the year—a fine 14-pound fish. I became a spectator and watched the anglers around me battle with large red snapper of their own.

I’ve fished for red snapper for a long time in a lot of places, but I’ve never seen such large red snapper caught so often. No doubt about it: For a number of reasons, right now is “the good old days” for Panhandle Florida’s red snapper anglers, and there’s never been a better time for hooking up with the red snapper of a lifetime.

Not much to do but hang on, when an extra-large snapper heads down. Let the reel’s drag do its job.

Let’s look at the upcoming Gulf of Mexico red snapper season predictions from captains in Pensacola, Destin and Panama City Beach. These three port towns, from west to east, are among Florida’s most important sportfishing centers, with charterboats, public ramps, hotels and active reef-development programs. They are also the closest to the snapper action. At the opening of red snapper season June 1, anglers can stay within easy sight of land—2 to 5 miles—and fish any sort of bottom structure and find full limits of very nice snapper in 40 to 50 feet of water.

Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe, east of Panama City, are also within a close shot, but as you travel east and then south along the Florida peninsula—Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and other towns—the optimal waters are 40 to 80 miles from shore.

Pensacola

Rosy Outlook for Snapper Populations

With the Deepwater Horizon fishery closure now a distant memory, Capt. Sean Kelly of the charterboat Total Package is very optimistic about 2011.

“We have been seeing an increase in the average size of red snapper each year,” he said, “and this year should be a great time to catch large snapper because of the decrease in fishing pressure in 2010.”

Kelly expects it’ll be easy to find fish.

“It’s difficult to find an artificial reef or piece of live bottom in Northwest Florida waters that isn’t holding red snapper,” he said. “These fish are starving for habitat and are now being found in deepwater locations where they were not previously found. And some are catching red snapper in the 15-pound range on shallow wrecks in local bays.”

Captain Kelly says jigs are becoming more popular. “We’re seeing great success using butterfly and Williamson jigs. Large dead baits and live baits tend to keep the smaller snapper away and give the larger snapper time to find and consume the offering. Live pinfish, cigar minnows and herring are excellent baits for large red snapper.”

Visiting anglers seeking extra-large red snapper often bring high-tech reels loaded with braided polyethylene line hoping to cash in on larger fish, but Kelly says traditional monofilament rigs may have an edge in shallow water.

“We find that the lack of stretch in Spectra line causes hooks to pull on large fish,” he explained, “and that 80-pound mono is ideal to handle large red snapper in depths less than 250 feet. We use Spectra lines in 250 feet and deeper where the lack of stretch helps avoid being wrecked by large fish, and its small diameter reduces the effects of strong current. Large circle hooks are a must, and fluorocarbon leader is stealthy and fray-resistant.”

Asked to give a projection for the 2011 red snapper season, Kelly replied, “2010 was looking to be a very good year before the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. We hope that 2011 will continue where 2010 left off, and that tourists understand that we have seen no signs of unhealthy fish populations, and that fishing is excellent.”

First couple of days of the season will likely see big fish like these within a few miles of the beach.

Destin

It’s Going to be Fintastic!

How much difference does a year make? Let’s listen to Capt. Scott Robson who charters the Phoenix and is president of the Destin Charter Boat Association. He has guided anglers on the beautiful clear waters of the Gulf off Destin for 35 years.

“Last fall we went out in November, and we were catching red snapper on top. Red snapper of 10 pounds and bigger were attacking topwater bass lures—boom-boom-bam!”

The big reds are in deep water, too, Robson said.

“Five or six years ago, I could fish deep water—200 feet and more—and avoid red snapper. Now, they’re everywhere.”

Captain Robson feels that there is a good chance of a new world record red snapper being caught somewhere in the Panhandle Gulf waters. The winning red snapper in last fall’s Destin Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo was 26 pounds—still a long way off the 50-pound, 4-ounce fish that holds the current IGFA mark, but a good sign nevertheless. (Fly fishermen will have a field day here: the tippet-class records are occupied by 7- to 16-pound fish, easy marks for anyone willing to dredge a fast-sinking line and fat streamer fly.)
If live bait can’t be found, fresh frozen will work, but a fun way to catch some big red snapper is to use jigging tackle over reefs and other structure. Slow jigging (see sidebar) can be an effective method for catching some big snapper. A 1- to 3-ounce jig with a scented soft tail can entice some big snapper bites. Don’t be too active with the jigging motion: snapper don’t like to work too hard in catching a jig.
Best advice for catching that red snapper of a lifetime? Captain Robson says, “Use a hand-size hardtail (blue runner) or a very big pinfish. Use as big a bait as possible. There is no bait too big for them.”

Panama City Beach

Tin Can on Bottom, Snapper Will Be on It!

Captain B.J. Burkett of the charterboat Hooked Up out of Panama City Beach said of the 2010 red snapper season, “It was definitely interesting and different. The media killed our season—the oil didn’t hurt us at all. The media telling the world that the Gulf was full of oil destroyed our business. I thought I was going under.” One bitter aspect about the loss of the season last summer was the state of the red snapper fishery before the closure. “The red snapper were larger and many more of them than we’ve ever seen,” said Burkett.
For 2011, things look even better as far as the red snapper fishing goes, Burkett tells Florida Sportsman.
“I’ve been fishing on the Gulf all my life. I’m the third generation in my family who has fished the Gulf. We’ve never seen such big red snapper and so many of them.”

“Five or six years ago, our nice average red snapper would be a 3- or 4-pound fish,” he continued. “Now, the average fish is eight pounds or better.” As far as numbers go, Burkett worked last fall with the state of Florida on population studies of red snapper in the Gulf.

“On one study trip, we tagged and released 289 red snapper in a single 10-hour research trip. Repeat trips indicated that many of the released fish survived and were caught again later.”

The Panama City Beach area offers red snapper anglers a choice of bottom structure. Go west and you’ll find natural bottom. Go east, it’s mostly artificial reefs. Either direction, red snapper will be there.
“I’m catching red snapper on bottom I’ve never caught them on before,” said Burkett. “If there’s a tin can on the bottom, red snapper will be on it!”

For that lifetime-best red snapper, anglers should do a couple of things, according to Burkett. First, fish up in the water column. Some big snapper are caught down right on the structure, but most of the time, the bigger fish will be above the smaller ones. Look at the fishfinder—the big ones will show up very well, and they will usually be up off the bottom.

Large baits often attract the true sow snappers, and on that count, Burkett says, “They’ll eat anything. You can’t use too big a bait. I’ve had red snapper eat small grouper that were coming up from the reef below.” Really big pinfish, cigar minnows, big ruby lips and hardtails are among good monster red snapper baits.
The 2011 red snapper season is set to open on Gulf waters June 1, with a closure date to be published by NOAA Fisheries. Again this year, anglers have a limit of two red snapper per angler per trip, and a 16-inch minimum length limit is in effect. However, with what we’ve heard from the local captains, it’s unlikely you’ll hook many snapper under 16 inches.

Another super reason to go snapper fishing in June and July on the Panhandle coast is the weather. This time of year is usually very pleasant. Visiting anglers can expect most days to begin with slick calm seas, making for easy runs offshore and back home most days.

For the really big red snapper, and as the season moves on and the close-in fish are caught, anglers will need to plan on fishing bottom structure 10 to 30 miles offshore, depths in the 150- to 200-foot range. FS


Slow-Jigging, Fast Results

One technique growing in popularity among Gulf snapper fishermen is slow jigging. Basically, this consists of free-dropping a jig or heavy spoon to the level of the fish showing on the fishfinder, stopping the drop at the right level, and then letting the fish find the lure. This is not amberjack jigging; don’t overwork the jig. Often red snapper will take the jig when it is just hanging still in the water column.

Captain Scott Robson of Destin says that soft-plastic jigs in 1-ounce sizes and silver color patterns can be dynamite on suspended snapper. He recommends lighter jigs that don’t sink as fast as heavier jigs or spoons. The idea is to give the snapper plenty of time to see and catch the dropping jig. For some reason, chartreuse jigs were very productive on red snapper last summer, and having some chartreuse jigs and spoons would be a good idea this season, too. When the bite is slow, a scented soft bait threaded on the jig hook can make all the difference in tempting snapper to eat.

It almost goes without saying that the hooks on jigs and spoons fished this way must be as sharp as possible. Dull or inferior hooks mean missed fish.

Lighter than usual tackle can be used for slow jigs, but rods must have good backbone to handle large snapper when they try to make the bottom. Thirty to 50-pound braided line is good, and about four feet of fluorocarbon leader in 50- to 80-pound test is sufficient. Make sure that the swivels used in the rigging are up to the task. Many really good fish are lost when the hooks hold, the line holds, the rods and reels hold, but the swivel is weak.

Both levelwind and spinning gear will work for slow jigging. Shimano spinning reels specifically designed for the jigging technique—the Torium, for instance—are recommended, but I like my old Penn 535 high-speed levelwind reel on a strong 7-foot rod for jigging. Whatever best fits an angler’s hand will work.

Pinfish Power

Hand-size pinfish are one of the best baits for red snapper. These little shrimp-stealers are found everywhere on the Panhandle coast, and putting baited fish traps around docks and other inshore structure can produce a livewell full of pinfish overnight. They are also easy to catch on small hooks and bits of shrimp. One of the biggest advantages of pinfish is their basic toughness—they will stand up to a 30-mile offshore run in a livewell and be very lively when other baitfish have gone belly-up. Hooked either through the lips or through the back, a frisky pinfish will attract lots of red snapper interest.

When those really big pinfish start filling bait traps later in the season, consider butterflying them. The biggest snappers I’ve caught all came on butterflied pinfish. Lay the fish flat on a cutting surface, and starting from the tail, fillet the fish toward the head, on each side, leaving the fillets attached at the shoulder. Break off the spine, and run the hook up through both lips. Some guys cut off the dorsal spines, too.

The captains we spoke with all agreed that a heavy Carolina rig (sliding sinker, swivel, leader, hook) with a suitably sized circle hook is the way to go with pinfish. One hundred pound monofilament leader is good; Capt. Scott Robson says red snapper are not leader-shy at all. Most captains who specialize in fishing red snapper with live bait say that 8 to 16 ounces of weight may be needed to get live pinfish to the bottom, depending on current and wind conditions.

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